A recent trip to Kenya’s Kokwa Island in Lake Baringo by EASF-supported students emphasized the fact-gathering/critical thinking skills and empathy those students will carry with them to American schools, and one day, back home.
The Education and Social Empowerment Program’s current class partnered with the Network for Ecofarming in Africa, a community-based NGO promoting ecologically sustainable land management and community access to education, health, food security and social dignity.
EASF board member and international development specialist Erik Heinonen instructed the students in field research basics. The students compiled their findings and recommendations in a report to NECOFA which works closely with Baringo County to tackle island issues. The students also came away with great respect for the breadth of programs and initiatives sustained by NECOFA and the efforts of its director, Samuel Muhunyu.
Accompanied by local interpreters, five pairs of EaSEP students spent nine hours circumnavigating the island to interview residents about health, transportation, commerce, education and political influences. They learned about life sustained by the fish of Lake Baringo. Moses Leching’ei, a man in his 70s, catches and smokes fish, selling it on the mainland for flour to support three young children in his care. He said that with his small canoe, a few goats and the fish, “his life is complete.”
Farther along, students spoke with an elderly woman fishing a few feet from shore. She knows that without her catch, there is no other food that she will find. Her sons and daughters have moved to the mainland to look for jobs and she is alone. She acknowledges the crocodiles who challenge her for fish: “They are dangerous, yes, and they are here. They can attack me at any time but there is no other way for me to get food. It is just by the grace of God that I am safe.”
The challenges of life in the searing heat of Kokwa Island are daunting for its 1800 inhabitants: not enough income to feed and educate children, or purchase mosquito netting to prevent malaria; no roads on the island, tribal clashes threatening family safety and livestock; an arid climate unfavorable to farming and livestock, worry that fishing is not sustainable, no extensive trading market on the island, and reduced political representation under Kenya’s new constitution.
Without training, young people lack the skills to work in the local tourism industry. Without fully operational hospitals or clinics, islanders must travel to the mainland for urgent medical care and rely on a sole dispensary nurse (supported by NECOFA) for everything else. Yet island schools offer hope, to both girls and boys.
The EaSEP teams regrouped to spend two full days visiting Kokwa primary and secondary schools, meeting first at each school with a large class of students, then breaking into small groups for more personal discussions— to share the “secrets” of academic success, but mostly to encourage the younger students “that their dreams are valid,” wrote EaSEP’s Yoni Kibiwot. He and his classmates also met at length with teachers at each school, sharing the insights obtained from the younger students, discussing the teachers’ challenges and offering suggestions from their own school experiences.
Only two students from Kokwa Island have ever gone on to university and the EaSEP group encouraged others to follow. "We wanted to tell the students that it is not a matter of whether they can or can’t, but a matter of whether they will or won’t. To tell them to not allow idleness to deceive them with the pleasure it gives them today for it denies them the joy of tomorrow,” Yoni recalled.
Samuel Muhunyu reported that teachers expressed gratitude for their students in remote schools “to interact and learn from the best students.” The head teachers at Kiserian Secondary School said that the EaSEP visit “could be the turning point for the students and schools.”